OVERNIGHT camping at the Franklin River Reserve on the South Gippsland Highway between Foster and Toora has been permanently banned.
South Gippsland Shire Council’s administration panel voted to close the reserve to campers because of “public health concerns, damage and inappropriate use of infrastructure” at the ordinary meeting held at Leongatha on Wednesday June 24, 2020.
The shire will also ask the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) to change the designation of the reserve from “camping” to “public purposes” only.
The Franklin River Reserve has been closed to campers during the COVID-19 pandemic but when it does reopen the shire says it will be “returned to its original use” as a daytime picnic destination and a resting place for passers-by only.
The scenic riverside reserve, alongside the South Gippsland Highway between Foster and Toora, has become increasingly popular during recent years as a free camping spot, especially with caravan and recreational vehicle (RV) users.
The decision to close the reserve to all campers however has upset many members of the local Corner Inlet community who have traditionally enjoyed staying with their families and friends on the grass beside the Franklin, in some cases going back for generations.
A report tabled to the panel identified several issues related to the effects of camping on the reserve, such as overuse and misuse of the existing toilet facilities, campers overstaying the 48-hour limit, inadequate drinking water supplies, rubbish left behind, hand basins used to wash dishes, and risk from fire and falling trees.
Council officers claim that the 30-year design life wastewater system installed to serve the toilet block built in 2018 at the southern end of the reserve was designed to cope with day visitors, not long-term campers, and certainly not with the contents of RV chemical toilets.
“The system has failed due to misuse, causing untreated effluent to come to the surface,” the officers wrote.
“Exposure to untreated effluent has significant public health impacts and is of particular concern in this location as it is close to the Franklin River waterway.”
“The untreated effluent has also extended into the management area which can no longer be mown as the land is too soft, and to protect workers from unnecessary risk due to the site’s contamination,” they stated.
“As a result of COVID19 restrictions the reserve has been closed for camping, which has allowed officers to test the theory that no camping eases pressure on the septic field, allowing it to return to its normal state, and it is anticipated that with day use only, the field may recover and properly function again.”
Administration panel chair Julie Eisenbise said the closure to campers was regrettable but necessary for the safety and health of users.
“Franklin River Reserve has proven popular with both day visitors and campers but the site can no longer sustain the number of people that have been using it,” she said.
“The reserve needs to be rehabilitated and its closure to campers is not just due to one issue but a number of ongoing problems.
“We know that the reserve is well-regarded but we cannot ignore the problems that exist with the site when it comes to camping, particularly public health concerns,” Ms Eisenbise said.
“We hope that the natural value of the site will be preserved by this decision.”
“Understandable but very disappointing”
Toora newsagent and town stalwart Irene Spooner said that while stopping camping at the Franklin River Reserve was “understandable” because of the immediate public health problem, the panel’s decision to prohibit camping altogether was “very disappointing”.
“The representatives on the shire at the moment don’t know the area as other people local to the region do, and the benefit that has been generated by travellers to local businesses has been enormous,” she said.
“People staying at the reserve have called in to my shop saying what a magnificent place it is and then they go on to buy food and petrol and the other items they need in the local area.
“The reserve is an asset to our region with its brilliant scenery and adds to the full range of top-notch accommodation that is already available, in motels, caravan parks and holiday houses,” Mrs Spooner said.
“Free camping gives another option to cater to people, often retired couples, who have got their own facilities.”
Mrs Spooner said the Toora community had been asking both the shire and South Gippsland Water for a free dump point to be installed for the use of RV owners in the Toora township.
“When the new toilet block was built in Sagasser Park it would have been easy to include an easily accessible dump point there, and close to the designated RV parking area, too,” she said.
“It’s a shame that people have been emptying their RV toilets at the Franklin reserve, but there are those who don’t always abide by the rules and then stuff it up for everybody.”
“A lost opportunity”
Long-term Toora resident and community newsletter Toora Times editor Dave Berry said “the problem is as I understand it, is that the septic system [at the Franklin River Reserve] was being used by RV campers to dump their chemical waste containers.
“The chemicals used in those containers in turn stop the septic system from working, which then blocks and backs up the flow from the toilets.
“It brings into consideration that if the council had allowed for a free dump point nearby, as requested by the Toora Community Action Group, then there would have been an alternative for RV campers to use,” he said.
“Now if the reserve is closed to all camping the RV problem may be somewhat alleviated, and the expensive maintenance of the septic toilet system may be less, but the loss of income to our retail sector will be more.
“The TCAT plan [was] for a free dump point [to be located] nearby [Toora’s] retail shopping area, and so might have brought even more visitors into town,” Mr Berry said.
“A lost opportunity, now.”
“Keep it clean”
A Google search reveals that the Franklin River Reserve has rated at an average of 4.4 stars out of five as a free camping site by 197 reviewers, with comments such as “Brilliant place, very green and clean with tons of room”.
Ironically, another camper remarked, “clean amenities, lovely and green parking spots, great little overnight free camp.
“Please people, keep it clean for everyone to enjoy.”